Has the Government's Work Programme failed? Let's wait for the data.
Channel 4 News claimed to have a scoop yesterday after it unearthed data on the Government's much-discussed welfare-to-work scheme. which suggested the scheme was "failing to meet the minimum targets set for it by the government in the first year of the Work Programme."
According to the broadcaster, as few as 3.5 per cent of jobseekers participating in the scheme run by A4e subsequently found 'sustainable' jobs (those which last at least 13 weeks).
However the firm at centre of the controversy, A4e, told the Guardian that the figures were "misleading". Similarly, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) told Channel 4 News that it would be "ludicrous" to draw conclusions on the strength of the data.
So do they have a point?
A4e and the DWP object to the fact that the figures are early estimates, pointing out that official statistics on job outcomes won't be available until the autumn.
This much is certainly true. As the DWP points out in its statistics on participation in the Work Programme:
"The Department is working to guidelines set by the UK Statistics Authority to ensure we are able to publish official statistics on the Work Programme that meet high quality standards at the earliest opportunity. Official statistics on job outcomes and sustainment payments will be released from autumn 2012."
So there is good reason to wait for the official data on welfare-to-work outcomes.
However, DWP Ministers do not always seem to heed their own department's advice.
Employment Minister Chris Grayling told the House of Commons in 2010 that the Work Programme's predecessor - the Flexible New Deal - represented poor value for money, despite the fact that official figures weren't yet available at the time. He said:
"Results of its full evaluation will be published in 2012. However, the initial figures, published last week, certainly give rise to concern that it represented poor value for money and that the arrangements set out by the previous Government were extremely expensive."
Similarly, when we looked at claims from the Prime Minister on the efficacy of the Flexible New Deal, we found that by using premature figures to guage its success, the PM's claim was, in the words of the House of Commons Library, "misleading".
The Library goes on to quote the DWP's own guidance, which states that:
"care should be taken when interpreting the relationship between starts and job outcomes as the series will naturally improve as a higher proportion of participants have been on the provision long enough to achieve a short and or a sustained outcome."
This point is borne out by the figures, which showed that a significantly higher proportion of participants were finding 'sustainable' work after 14 months than were after 11 months.
Given that the Work Programme has existed now for almost exactly a year, it isn't surprising that conclusions about its effectiveness are already being drawn. However until the first set of official statistics are released in a few months time, such conclusions are likely to be premature, and we should treat them with the appropriate caution.